On The Natural History of DestructionBMJ 2003; 326 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7392.769/a (Published 05 April 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:769
W G Sebald; translated by Anthea Bell
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, pp 205
ISBN 0 241 14126 5
This final work by W G Sebald, late professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, is strikingly relevant, when “smart” bombs and missiles nowadays supposedly avoid “collateral damage.” Its primary subject is literature and the Allied air raids on Germany during the second world war, but it is just as much about the psychopathology of destructiveness, repression in the mass memory of succeeding generations, and the sequelae of torture and cruelty from the victims' point of view.
The book comprises four essays. In the first and longest, titled “Air War and Literature,” Sebald asks why the devastation of 131 German cities and towns targeted by Allied bombing occupies so little space in Germany's cultural memory. The bombing killed 600 000 civilians, destroyed 3.5 million homes, and left 7.5 million Germans homeless. Yet for the most part German writers have remained strangely silent about it.
Sebald retrieves horrifying accounts of the incinerating effects of the firestorms that followed the bombing. He quotes Friedrich Reck (who died from typhus in Dachau) describing a group of 40 to 50 refugees from Hamburg trying to force their way on to a train at a station in Upper Bavaria. As they do so, a cardboard suitcase “falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her, the relic of a past that was still intact a few days ago.”
In one of the remaining essays he discusses the writings of Holocaust survivor Jean Améry, particularly his chilling and “curiously objective” description of his torture by the Nazis. Améry's hands were shackled behind his back and then raised by a hook on a chain until he hung about a metre above the floor. “There was a cracking and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten to this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets.” Sebald comments that Améry knows that he is operating on the borders of what language can convey. He also tells us that Améry wrote that torture has “an indelible character. Whoever was tortured stays tortured.”
Sebald's death in a car crash in 2001 cut short the literary career of someone who was beginning to be recognised as one of the greatest contemporary writers. Certainly I have rarely read a collection that displays such insight into the nature of human destructiveness as this one.
Log in using your username and password
Log in through your institution
Register for a free trial to thebmj.com to receive unlimited access to all content on thebmj.com for 14 days.
Sign up for a free trial